Suspect in massive $17M online fraud scheme arrested in Edinburg

Romance scams. Unemployment insurance fraud. Fraudulent marriages.

These are just a handful of accusations against 28 people accused of bilking at least $17 million out of people, government entities and businesses since 2017.

And the first suspect was arrested Wednesday in Edinburg.

Kingsley Oziegbe is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering and was scheduled for a first appearance in federal court Thursday morning.

The indictment, which is out of the Eastern District of Texas, accuses Oziegbe and the others, whose names are redacted, of a multitude of fraudulent schemes to obtain money from people, including online romance scams, compromising business emails, investor fraud and unemployment insurance fraud.

“The defendants not only coordinated how to exact money from their victims, but also how to disguise, disburse, and launder that money once they successfully defrauded their victims,” the indictment stated. “Through their fraudulent conduct, the defendants obtained at least $17 million dollars from individual victims, companies, and government entities located across the world.”

Federal prosecutors allege Oziegbe and his co-defendants requested and coerced money from victims using false identities and representations and used virtual private networks, or VPNs, to mask their locations.

The money they received from their schemes was deposited into banks in Africa and Asia and prosecutors allege the defendants lied about their marriage and immigration statuses to stay in the United States and further their scheme.

The indictment includes numerous examples of the alleged fraud, including a Sept. 13, 2020, communication where co-conspirators discussed scamming women.

“‘Older women. All this fake love matter…They will put it there and they get the women to get out the money. These are different ways and they are new things.’ On or about September 15, 2020, while discussing sham businesses with another co-conspirator, (redacted) boasted that she did extensive ‘419’ (also known as Nigerian letter fraud),” the indictment states.

Oziegbe is only named a handful of times in the redacted indictment, including an Oct. 6, 2020, message where a co-conspirator told him that they “just sent 50 thousand for fish.”

“Kingsley Oziegbe affirmed interest in the fraudulent enterprise by saying: ‘I really want to venture into the side of making this bureau exchange thing like a constant thing, not something I do from time to time,’” the indictment states.

Federal prosecutors allege the defendants fabricated identities and back stories to lure victims to send money.

“These included lies about who the victim was actually communicating with, lies about their interest or friendship with the victim, and lies about why the victim needed to send money,” the indictment states. “For example, one victim with initials J.R. was approached through an online dating site by an individual named ‘Russell Hall.’”

Over five months, “Hall” represented to the victim that he was an international civil engineer whose work was taking him to South Africa and that he was romantically interested in the victim.

“Eventually, Hall requested J.R. send him $50,000 for unanticipated ‘port fees’ related to his job, and then asked for another $80,000 to pay for new equipment for his work. All these representations were false,” the indictment states.

Once the alleged scammers received the cash, they engaged in a series of financial transactions to pay each other, transfer money internationally and to disguise to source of the money, according to federal prosecutors.

In another alleged scam, the suspects obtained money by targeting companies and businesses.

“In one instance, a business investor with initials M.G. entered into a contract for payments toward jet fuel storage related to Shelfneftegaz Refinery. Although the refinery existed and the business purpose appeared legitimate, M.G.’s company received an invoice and wire instructions for payments from a financially fraudulent and blacklisted entity operated by the defendants and their co-conspirators — OMSK Tank Farm,” the indictment states.

The suspects are also accused of profiting off of the global pandemic by targeting government funds earmarked for those whose employment was impacted by COVID-19, those who are unable to work and those transitioning between jobs.

Federal prosecutors allege they did this by submitting fraudulent applications to various states administering unemployment insurance benefit programs.

To conduct this scheme, the suspects had to physically reside in the United States.

“However, several defendants did not obtain lawful status to reside as a permanent resident in the United States. Instead, the defendants and co-conspirators entered into unlawful and fraudulent marriages with United States citizens, lied on United States immigration forms, and overstayed government-issued visas,” the indictment states.

According to the charging document, there are at least 100 victims.

Both counts levied in the indictment carry a penalty of not more than 20 years in the Bureau of Prisons, as well as hefty fines, including one not to exceed $1 million.

Oziegbe will likely be extradited to Sherman, Texas, which is where the warrant for his arrest was issued.